Sept. 19, 2009
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin jogged to midfield, briefly shook hands with Florida's Urban Meyer and then darted toward the locker room.
Kiffin kept his head up the whole way. Who could blame him? After all, he had more reason to be encouraged than embarrassed after his Southeastern Conference opener against the top-ranked Gators.
Tim Tebow ran for 76 yards and a touchdown, Caleb Sturgis kicked three field goals and Florida eked out a 23-13 win over the Volunteers on Saturday.
It wasn't the beatdown many expected. It gave Kiffin reason to believe Tennessee (1-2, 0-1) is on the right track. It gave Meyer a big enough scare that it could help the defending national champions the rest of the way.
"It wasn't how we envisioned or hoped," said Tebow, whose streak of games with a TD pass ended at 30. "But it's a win and it's good enough for all of us."
The Gators (3-0, 1-0) won their fifth straight in the series and set a school record with their 13th consecutive victory.
Florida started counting down the days for this one more than nine months ago, right after Kiffin vowed to sing "Rocky Top" all night long after being the Gators. Kiffin also riled up Florida with his false allegations of NCAA violations by Meyer.
Kiffin ran out of the tunnel just before the opening kick and had 90,000 Florida fans screaming, pointing and yelling obscenities at him. One guy even tried to torment Kiffin with a poster of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, Kiffin's former boss. Kiffin said afterward that his plan from Day 1 was to take the focus of his players and put it on him.
"It worked perfectly," Kiffin said. "It took all the pressure off the players. We played the No. 1 team in the nation with no pressure on them. ... It was all on me. We were 30-point underdogs in this place and it really helped them go out and play ball."
Kiffin refused to claim a moral victory, though. So singing "Rocky Top" will have to wait at least another year. He didn't even consider humming the tune.
"No, we lost a game," Kiffin said. "Maybe I'll come back here for basketball and sing it for (coach) Bruce (Pearl)."
Florida's postgame celebration was about as conservative as its game plan. There was no trash talk and no one trying to rub it in. The Gators were clearly disappointed with their performance, even though they had reason to celebrate.
Tebow, return man Brandon James and Florida's defense gave the Vols fits for the third straight year.
Tebow completed 14 of 19 passes for 115 yards, although he also had two turnovers that Tennessee turned into 10 points. James returned three kickoffs for 97 yards, helping set up Florida's first 13 points, but he also dropped a pass in the end zone.
And the defense harassed Jonathan Crompton and twice held the Vols to short field goals when they were in position for touchdowns. Ahmad Black intercepted Crompton on fourth down with about 2 minutes to play, ending Tennessee's last chance at pulling off the upset.
"I'm not happy," said Crompton, who threw three interceptions and fumbled a snap last week against UCLA. "Don't want to lose if you're a competitor. Hate losing more than you like winning. Look at the positives. Got a chance to capitalize early and late."
Tebow took over down the stretch.
After his two nifty, 4-yard runs, the Gators looked like they would put the game away. But Tebow fumbled at the Vols 4, and Tennessee scored seven plays later to make it 23-13. It was Tebow's second turnover of the game. He threw an interception in the first half that Tennessee turned into a field goal.
The Gators had some excuses for their lackluster offense. Receiver Deonte Thompson missed the game because of a hamstring injury. Running back Jeff Demps played with a 101-degree fever. And tight end Aaron Hernandez had to be isolated Friday because of flu-like symptoms.
Meyer put it all on Tebow, who ran 24 times.
His best plays were short gains late. He started right on a third-and-3, looked to throw and then cut back left and headed toward the sideline. He eluded Wes Brown's grasp, then tiptoed down the sideline for a 4-yard gain. Instead of possibly being forced to punt, the Gators scored a touchdown to make it 23-6.
"Unbelievable," Meyer said. "Vintage Tebow. He had a hell of a day. ... He kind of took that game over on that drive. That was one of the best plays. I can't wait to see that on film. He was this far from out of bounds and got the first down."
"I don't think he's human," Kiffin said. "I really don't. There were times when I asked (the coaches in the booth) on the headset, 'Is he ever going to wear down?' But he never does. Our defense worked hard and you just prayed to get it to third-and-4, because if it was third-and-3, he was going to put his head down and run over people."
Tebow and the Gators had their heads down afterward. Meyer even said he had to lighten the mood in the locker room.
"I think there's so much pressure on this team to perform perfectly, which is good," Meyer said. "I'd rather be on that end than on, 'Boy, great job. We lost by 10.' I don't want to do that. There's a lot of pressure on these guys and I felt it in there."